Making the World Seem a Little Worse, Day by Day

by Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute

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Earlier today Secretary of State John Kerry made comments on terrorism and the media. Here is what he said:

Remember this: No country is immune from terrorism. It’s easy to terrorize. Government and law enforcement have to be correct 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. But if you decide one day you’re going to be a terrorist and you’re willing to kill yourself, you can go out and kill some people. You can make some noise. Perhaps the media would do us all a service if they didn’t cover it quite as much. People wouldn’t know what’s going on. The fact is we have to stand together, and the United States is standing with Bangladesh in this fight.

John Kerry, August 30, 2016

Thus started a firestorm about his comment that the media perhaps shouldn’t cover terrorism quite as much as they do.

The issue did not make the Washington Post headlines, nor the Washington Times or the New York Times, for that matter. It did not make Fox News. But it was the top story on the right-wing online news outlet The Blaze, founded by less-than-level-headed Glen Beck, and Breitbart News, founded by conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart. And I do expect that you will hear about it sometime tonight on the cable networks and more tomorrow. For now, Larry the Cable Guy is getting more news about his belief that Hillary Clinton as president will end the country as we know it (not making this up). Stick to comedy, Larry.

I do not agree with what John Kerry said, but I know why he said it. I’m sure President George W. Bush wished that Keith Olbermann would not have ended every nightly newscast of Countdown with Keith Olbermann by listing the number of dead personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The point Kerry was trying to make, and did not, was that the piling on of bad news makes people think things are a lot worse than they are and makes it more difficult for the government and law enforcement to do their jobs. People do bad things. In some cases, despicable things. But the world is not a bad place. We are just led to believe it is by the media that will do anything for “Breaking News.” It has become somewhat of a game to watch Wolf Blitzer announce a breaking news story about something that is barely newsworthy at all. Below is a screen shot from MSNBC’s breaking news about a woman who was to come on stage and pull Donald Trump’s hair to prove it is real. The BBC News issued a breaking news story announcing that Justin Beiber and Selena Gomez had broken up (I know, old ‘news’).

Trump

This is what we’ve become. The 24/7 news cycle demands something new and important and, well, “breaking” all the time. And the media will manufacture news. This is not a left or right, conservative vs. liberal issue. They all do it because of the news cycle. They need ratings.

The downside is that we are left with news that either makes us feel like we live in a completely sick (to those under 30, this does not mean good) society or that we just do not follow the news at all. And that is not good for society writ large.

In education, we see how this plays out on national surveys. Americans, by and large, think that education, especially public education, is in a desperate situation. However, those same people, when asked about their schools and district, think that things are great at home. See the PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools for evidence. The same thing happens in politics. Everyone, it seems, thinks that Congress is, dare I say, “rigged.” But they continue to vote for the same local member of Congress because “he is okay.” I hate to break it to those people, but Congress is nothing but the amalgam of all those individual votes. It really is not about the presidency; it is about the members, because they make the laws. The President just signs them. Occasionally vetoes them.

In the end, we have too much bad news on the airwaves because bad news gets play. The good news, when you do hear good news, is typically sappy stuff. Watch Headline News with Robin Meade in the morning and you will quickly get my drift. While Ms. Meade is actually very good at what she does, the Former Miss Ohio can quickly make a 180 from a bad, gut-wrenching story to a fun-filled story about someone’s dog. You’ll see the same thing on every news network.

This is what Don Henley wrote about in his song Dirty Laundry (“Get the Widow on the Set”). People actually want to hear the bad things about people. It is our inner Schadenfreude: our inner happiness in the decline of others. This is a well-known psychological phenomenon where our psyche feels better about ourselves via the worsening of situations for others.

The media latches on to schadenfreude with a fury.

We see and hear in every waking moment via our news networks in our political system. During arguably the ugliest political campaign in the history of this nation, vitriol wins every time. Perhaps the leaders understand that, knowing full well that there is no such thing as bad press. Donald Trump continues to prove the point: daily.

I can hardly wait for Election Day, not so this seemingly endless nightmare can come to an end, but so I can wake up on November 9th and hear the pundits castigating about 2020. Yes, the nightmare will continue.

Be nice to one another. What you do may be the only decent thing that someone hears or feels today. 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at educationalpolicy.org.
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